Julie NIUBOI Ferguson in ‘Scorch.’ (Photo: Liam Mackenzie)
By Matthew Wexler
Many Americans have joked over the past year about border hopping to Canada, where “sorry” and “eh?” provide a welcome substitute to the vitriol spewing forth from our commander-in-chief as well as the non-partisan media storm that continues to spin at hurricane levels. But all is not quiet on the northern front.
Theatrical rumblings at this year’s Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival prove that the queer narrative (with varying degrees of success) is shaking Alberta’s sacred ground, declaring that Canadian theater artists are not afraid to take a deep dive into the conflicts facing the LGBTQ community. Among the dozens of shows at this year’s festival, two in particular tackled stories that might make some squirm, but more importantly, unpacked themes that demand attention far beyond the theater community.
Scorch by UK-based playwright Stacey Gregg draws inspiration from the case of Justine McNally, convicted in 2013 of six counts of sexual assault by penetration, having presented as male to an allegedly unknowing girl she had met and established a relationship with online. It is one of several cases resulting in conviction and a surge of “gender fraud” allegations that dispute the complex subtleties between gender identification, illegal actions, and behind-the-times court systems struggling to establish parameters for non-binary individuals.
Scorch originally premiered at the 2016 Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the playwright granted permission to director/producer Brenley Charkow to fine-tune the play for Canadian audiences. The shift in locale doesn’t serve the play in any greater capacity, except to allow local trans non-binary performance artist Julie NIUBOI Ferguson to tackle the complex role of Kes without the weight of dialect coaching. As is, Ferguson, dressed in a baggy black hoodie and knit hat, delivers an able if not extraordinary performance of Gregg’s one-hour monologue, which maintains a first-person voice with most of the narrative addressed directly to the audience.
Gregg’s script bristles with one-liners that remind us how adolescence, amplified by hormones and social media, is fraught with confusion. Kes bemoans their growing breasts, complaining that “Nobody asked me. They just popped up like an alien,” but finds solace online, where their male persona discovers empowerment, saying, “I like that they like that I like what they like.”
Kes’s longtime online relationship with Jules eventually results in the pair meeting and several questionable sexual encounters in which Jules thinks she’s having intercourse with a man. After one of the parents discovers the strap-on device, the affair becomes a media frenzy as well as a controversial court case.
Scorch plays to the safety net of the audience, who represent Kes’s Meetup group as the house lights rise and dim throughout the performance. Yet Ferguson finds more depth of expression in movement (the actor has studied clowning, voguing, mime, and dance) than in the play’s text, which is delivered with limited range and a thin air of breathlessness. Still, there is a raw sense of unpolished authenticity though Charkow’s direction leaves several of the play’s hard-hitting moments for ambiguous interpretation. The teen says, “I’m sorry,” but later bemoans, “They played me like an avatar in someone else’s game.” Some might argue that this approach is precisely Gregg’s point: Kes is unsure of their own complicity.
One can’t deny the visceral impact of Scorch’s presence at this year’s festival. Just as Kes says, “I’m trying to improve my queer slang,” so is the queer community continually evolving and pushing boundaries.
The immigrant and LGBTQ experience collide in Makram Ayache’s new play, Harun, produced by the In Arms Theatre Collective, an “ad hoc queer theatre group creating work, representation, and opportunities for LGBTQIA+ identifying artists based in Edmonton.” Ayache also portrays the play’s title character, a first generation Arab-Canadian immigrant struggling to come to terms with his ethnic, cultural, and sexual identity.
Told through a series of swift-moving scenes, dreamlike sequences and a Greek chorus, Harun is haunted by visions of his mother, who was killed in an Egyptian bus bombing. His father, too, is dead, so Harun (called Aaron by his university friends) must rebuild his life as an openly gay Canadian immigrant. Harun, along with his social network and boyfriend David (an over-earnest Jacob Holloway), are all members of the Student Action Network, a protest and advocacy group. As a big protest event approaches, Hurun’s anxieties become more evident and temperaments flair.
Ayache’s first attempt at playwriting forgoes plot-heavy action, instead, relying on thematic expression staged by director Mieko Ouchi. In one instance, Amena Shehab as Harun’s mother speaks in Arabic — a confrontational moment that is then later repeated in English. Ayache also splices together multiple scenes, a convention used to great effect in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America as a climatic shift in action, though not as polished or useful in this instance.
As a playwright, Ayache is most successful when his characters riff in natural rhythms befitting millennials. The scene in which Harun first encounters David at the Student Action Network registration is endearingly sweet. Griffin Cork also delivers a reliable performance as the group’s narcissistic friend Henry who questions the accuracy of white privilege in times of cultural sensitivity. Harun wobbles, though, within its grandiose structure when the ensemble swoops about the stage with props and handheld lights, undermining Ayache’s more intimate through line: one of love, forgiveness, and letting go.
Our editor Wexler Writes is in Edmonton for North America’s largest Fringe festival — story coming soon!
Posted by The Broadway Blog on Friday, August 24, 2018
Scorch and Harun represent emerging voices, each uniquely tackling LGBTQ themes that are long overdue for their time in the spotlight. The Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival has been a home to such artists since its founding in 1982. The first and largest festival of its kind in North America, EIFTF attracts talent from around the world to a Canadian city that is refreshingly unapologetic in its approach to diverse storytelling.
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.